Early Exploration

John Cabot

Cabot's 1497 Voyage
Northern Landfall

Cape Breton Landfall

Newfoundland Landfall

The Matthew

The strongest local belief is that John Cabot reached
Cape Bonavista.
Newfoundland theorists have dismissed the Cape Breton landfall argument.
There is a belief that Cabot entered the St. John's harbour on June 24.
We may never know with absolute certainty where Cabot made his landfall.
Bonavista Landfall Argument

There is no doubt that great passions have been aroused in Newfoundland concerning Cabot's landfall. The strongest local tradition is that he sighted Cape Bonavista, with less attention given to his subsequent coasting. The notion goes back at least to the map of Newfoundland prepared by Captain John Mason in about 1617 and published in several editions.

John Mason's map of Newfoundland, ca. 1617.
In 1616, Mason was appointed Governor of the English colony at Cupids Cove (Cuperts Cove on the map), Conception Bay. Mason was the first Englishman to draw a map of Newfoundland. Old maps like this one were often inverted in the orientation and drawn with North situated at the bottom of the map.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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John Mason map

This map contains many familiar place names on the English Shore. Over Cape Bonavista, called 'North Faulkland', is marked 'Bona Vista Caboto primum reperta'. Many believe that Mason, who was governor of the London and Bristol Company in Newfoundland for three and a half years, obtained information from an older chart now lost, or from West Country fishermen. This is the sole historical document to support a Bonavista landfall, and it may possibly be supported by the belief that some of the fishermen who knew Mason also knew the sons or grandsons of those who sailed with Cabot. But it could also be claimed that Mason, and perhaps his informants, adopted the Cape Bonavista simply because they themselves used that place as their point of arrival and departure over the years.

Latitude Sailing

To champion Bonavista as the landfall is sound enough. However, the argument is strengthened if one assumes latitude sailing from the mouth of the Bristol Channel, the Matthew encountering those natural forces - currents and magnetic variation - which many scholars have suggested would make Cabot's course swerve southwards. This is, in general, the line of argument taken by Fabian O'Dea in the most convincing modern article supporting the Bonavista landfall (O'Dea, 1988). He thinks it probable that Cabot sailed west from Fastnet, and was then carried south by the Labrador Current as he approached North America, a point in the voyage when he also encountered a storm. Thus Bonavista emerges as a realistic landfall.

Another Newfoundlander who supported Bonavista, W. A. Munn, suggested that Mason deliberately placed the Cabot discovery claim over the cape in Latin because he wanted every map-maker in Spain, Portugal, France or Italy to understand the meaning correctly; and he saw an immediate response, in that a French map by Du Pont of Dieppe (1625) called Cape Bonavista 'Primum Inventa' (first named). Munn scathingly dismissed the Cape Breton theorists, going so far as to claim that Canadians have over-stepped the bounds of courtesy by asserting what they could not prove (Munn, 1936). O'Dea follows Munn in criticising the arguments in favour of Cape Breton, though less strenuously.

Nfld. Landfall
The routes argued by English and Munn.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1997.

Coasting Voyage

But if Bonavista was the landfall, where did Cabot go next? W. A. Munn (1936) argued that because Cabot was sailing west, he would have gone northwest, to the Northern Peninsula, southern Labrador and home. Munn located La Cosa's fifth flag, the Cape of Engand, in Labrador. L.E.F. English (1962) considered that La Cosa's flag-waving coast was a representation of the east coast of Newfoundland, and brought Cabot to the Avalon Peninsula. Baccalieu Island was Cabot's Isle of St. John, or even the south-eastern portion of the Avalon, because coming south into Conception Bay this appears as an island. Not wholeheartedly for Bonavista, English brought Cabot through the Narrows and into the harbour of St. John's on June 24 (English, 1962). F. O'Dea (1988) agreed that Cabot would have sailed south. However, the route that best fits the evidence, he thinks, has Cabot rounding Cape Race and possibly reaching Cape Breton, where he turned back to explore the coast more thoroughly.

Mappa Mundi by Juan de la Cosa, ca. 1500.
La Cosa, a Spanish Basque pilot and cosmographer, drew this map shortly after 1500. As owner of the Santa Maria, the vessel that Chrisopher Columbus took to America in 1492, la Cosa accompanied Columbus on his first two voyages. He then continued to survey the American coast until 1504.

From W. P. Cumming, R. A. Skelton and D. B. Quinn, The Discovery of North America (Montreal: McClelland and Stewart Limited, ©1971) 36. Courtesy of Museo Naval de Madrid, Madrid.
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de la Cosa map

One further map, neglected by many landfall theorists, is Gastaldi's of 1556. This still showed Newfoundland and Labrador as the familiar series of islands they were to remain (with certain exceptions) during much of the first century after discovery. He illustrated Indians, birds of prey, and fishing activities but most interesting of all, is a tall cross located north of Cape Race and 'C.de Speranza' but south of 'Bacalaos' and 'Bona Vista', on the east, Atlantic-facing coast.

Gastaldi map Gastaldi map.
Drawn in 1556, discovered in 1850.

Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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This led E.G.R. Taylor to suggest that Cabot's only landing was at the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, with a departure for home from Cape Bauld (Taylor, 1963).

Newfoundland Landfall
The Talyor Newfoundland landfall argument.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1997.

Scanty Evidence

It is unlikely that we will ever know with any certainty where Cabot made his landfall, and where he sailed afterwards. The direct evidence is too scanty and, as we have seen, can be used to make a case for a southern landfall, in Cape Breton or further south; for a landfall in the area of the Straits of Belle Isle; and for an eastern landfall, at Cape Bonavista or a point on the Avalon Peninsula. All we can deal with is likelihoods, adding to the documentary evidence modern knowledge of the sea, and of Cabot's navigational methods.

Taking everything into consideration, however, we know that Cabot coasted for about a month after his arrival, that he found most of the land on the way back to England, and that he was rewarded for finding the new isle. This was the great discovery of 1497. It absorbed most of Cabot's attention, and its extent was confirmed by coasting which ended so far to the east that it made possible an open ocean return to Europe in a very short time. With all this in mind, a northern landfall followed by a coasting voyage which proved the extent of the great island by an anticlockwise near-circumnavigation seems, in the present state of knowledge, to be the most likely solution.

Bonavista Tradition Popular in Newfoundland

In spite of the alternatives, in Newfoundland the Bonavista tradition is deeply ingrained. One who did as much as anybody to remind Newfoundlanders of their Cabot heritage was D W. Prowse. His History (1895) ended by calling up the legend as told on the Peninsula itself: 'On the morning of the 24th June 1897 four hundred years will have rolled away since John Cabot first sighted the green Cape of Bonavista; four centuries will have elapsed since the stem of the Matthew's boat grated on the gravelly shore of Keels, and since King's Cove witnessed the setting up of the Royal Ensign...'. It is now 500 years on and it is ironic, perhaps, that we know more about Jacques Cartier's arrival on the other side of the Bonavista Peninsula in 1534.

Where you think Cabot sighted Newfoundland depends on where you start from: 'Consider the perennial controversy that surrounds John Cabot', wrote Theodore Layng, 'no one in this day and age will think it is a matter of great importance to know exactly his route to Canada or where he landed, but when all the pieces of the puzzle are laid out for inspection, it is a good mental exercise, and good fun, to attempt an answer' (Layng, 1961).

©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project

Updated by James Hiller and Jenny Higgins, June 2013


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